Ian Carter
Thursday 21 June 2018
On 22 June 1941 Hitler launched Operation 'Barbarossa', the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of a campaign that would ultimately decide the Second World War.

Hitler regarded the Soviet Union as his natural enemy. He aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its populations, providing the Lebensraum (or 'living space') that Hitler believed Germany needed in the East.    

German forces attacked towards Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and the Ukraine in the south. Hitler expected a rapid victory. The Soviet Army was large, but poorly trained and badly led. Its senior commanders feared the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, as much as the enemy now crashing through their defences.

Photographs

German troops set fire to a Russian village

Photographs

German troops set fire to a Russian village

German troops occupy a burning Russian village during Operation Barbarossa, summer 1941. Hitler intended the campaign to be a ‘war of annihilation’. Civilians suffered at the hands of the German Army, and none more so than Soviet Jews whose persecution began almost immediately. 

At first, the Germans enjoyed stunning success. The armoured – or 'panzer' – divisions forged ahead and hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or captured in huge encirclement battles. The Luftwaffe ruled the skies. But the immense distances and difficult terrain soon caused logistical problems. Russian troop numbers had been underestimated and, despite terrible losses, the Soviet will to fight remained strong. German casualties mounted.

Photographs

A German PzKpfw 38(t) tank advances

Photographs

A German PzKpfw 38(t) tank advances

Many of these Czech-built light tanks were used by the Germans during Barbarossa. The armoured divisions were well trained and led, but lacked the resources and reserves for a sustained campaign.

Pzkpfw 38(t) Ausf E or F of the 7th Panzer Division in Russia, 1941.

Hitler disagreed with his generals on strategy. He delayed the thrust on Moscow to reinforce his troops in the north and south. It was a fateful decision. The Soviets had time to defend their capital. As the brutal Russian winter took hold the German advance ground to a halt just short of the city. Soviet forces then counterattacked, forcing the Germans onto the defensive. It was Hitler’s first defeat of the war.

Related Content

Russian soldiers hoist the Red Flag over a recaptured factory, Stalingrad.
Second World War
What You Need To Know About The Battle Of Stalingrad
Stalingrad was one of the most decisive battles on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. The Soviet Union inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the German Army in and around this strategically important city on the Volga river, which bore the name of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin.
A Finnish ski patrol, lying in the snow on the outskirts of a wood in Northern Finland, on the alert for Russian troops, 12 January 1940.
Second World War
A Short History Of The 'Winter War'
The ‘Winter War’ of 1939-1940, also known as the Russo-Finnish War, saw the tiny Finnish Army take on the might of the Soviet Union’s gigantic Red Army. There was mistrust between the two countries. Finland believed the Soviet Union wanted to expand into its territory and the Soviet Union feared Finland would allow itself to be used as a base from which enemies could attack.
German motorcycle troops and infantry pass a long column of Russian prisoners during the advance into the Soviet Union, 1941.
© IWM (HU 111371)
Second World War
Operation 'Barbarossa' And Germany's Failure In The Soviet Union
In August 1939, as Europe slid towards another world war, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came as a complete surprise to other nations, given the ideological differences between the two countries.